Delhi and London: learning to share the streets

India Quarterly coverThe Indian Quarterly is an excellent new magazine published by Madhu Jain and Jonathan Foreman. I contributed an article for the third edition, out now – available below.



“There was hardly any traffic when I got here in ’47. Connaught Place was really the fulcrum of the whole city then. It used to be wonderful all weekend – in the morning we would go and have a cup of coffee, walk around. The only traffic was bicycles, and very few.”

Kuldip Nayar migrated to Delhi from Sialkot, the Punjabi town that fell on the east side of the Radcliffe line. Now 89 and with a distinguished career as one of India’s best known journalists, he can clearly recall how it felt to arrive in Edwin Lutyens’ recently finished New Delhi. “It felt ‘New’, yes, in the sense that there was definitely a freshness about it, something modern. Then the roads were widened, and widened, and widened again. Now it is very different.”

The funeral of former Prime Minister IK Gujral (a close friend of Nayar’s) in December 2012 highlighted the continuing traffic challenges in Delhi. Parts of the city were brought to a standstill. “They closed the roads for the VIPs. No-one could move… now there is an action in the Supreme Court,” says Nayar. The action has been brought by former Solicitor-General Harish Salve who spent two hours stuck in his car that day. “The entire red beacon culture has to go,” said Salve in court, referring to the tendency to close parts of the city at short notice. He objects to the word “sanitisation” used when roads are closed in preparation for visits by VIPs, pointing out that it makes Delhi’s residents sound like bacteria. The action has gained many supporters: the fight against the “red beacon” culture has become a symbol of the frustration felt by many of residents in Delhi, a city that adds an estimated 12,000 cars to its streets every month. Serious traffic jams are such a regular occurrence that they are wearily accepted. The fug of fumes that hangs over the city is starting to become the new normal.

In London, a city that has had its fair share of traffic problems in the past, a radical new approach to traffic planning – ‘shared space’ – is being tested on a small scale. It is a system that is designed to break the car’s monopoly on the streets and has been implemented on Kensington’s Exhibition Road, only a stone’s throw from the old School of Architecture where Edwin Lutyens the designer of New Delhi in the 1930s learnt his trade. But the scheme has more in common with the jostling streets of Old Delhi and rural Indian towns than the widened roads of Lutyens’ New Delhi and its red beacon culture. There are no pavements and no road markings. Cars and pedestrians respect each other more, the theorists say, and show heightened awareness when they know that they have no exclusive rights to areas of public space. Campaigners claim that accident numbers fall, and that traffic flow is improved.

Bill Mount, the lead Officer on the Exhibition Road scheme, was inspired by the approach laid out in the Manasara Shilpa Shastra, a collection of Indian writings that detailed the orderly laying out of towns first written in the fifth and sixth centuries. As he fought to get the scheme approved he “identified with the manual’s approach of considering carefully how public space should be designed to best meet the needs of its users.” Somewhere along the line, he felt, city planners had forgotten that.

“Shared space is about equity-based transportation,” says Eric Britton, a leading thinker on transport based in Paris who runs the website and helps facilitate its subsidiary Indiastreets. “Cities will only really work in the future when we remove and/or tame the cars that are there. If there is no policy of car restraint – if planners do not decrease the number of cars and make it more difficult to drive and certainly to park your car – then the city is unlikely to work.” He acknowledges that public transport schemes in Delhi like the BRT are an attempt to break the pattern, but says they will fail unless they are part of a larger unified initiative. He thinks policies like road-widening and exclusive car lanes are reinforcing divisive two-tier structures in cities. The advocates of ‘Shared Space’ argue that in the future it will be too simplistic to think of traffic as just about cars on roads. Instead, competent public authorities will need to think innovatively about public space from the perspective of all users including pedestrians to create a harmonious environment for living.

London has benefited from other traffic and planning innovations. Inspiration can come from anywhere. The Mayor Boris Johnson’s highly praised bike-sharing scheme is modeled on similar schemes elsewhere in Europe; the growth of cycle rickshaw-taxis in the city is a nod to India; congestion charging (taxing cars to enter the city centre) is an old idea from the time when cities were more like self-contained states. After his visit to India in late 2012, Johnson said that London had “much to learn” from Hyderabad’s proposals for a “aerotropolis,” the idea of an American urban design guru, John Kasada.

As India’s capital, Delhi sits on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s great cities but its traffic problems continue to weigh it down. Dealing with the pernicious VIP lanes and the “red beacon culture” would be a popular move and a signal that the administration is looking for solutions that will help all its residents, not just the privileged few.

But genuine transformation will only come from radical thinking and openness to ideas from around the world. Perhaps the wisdom of the Manasara Shilpa Shastra will once again inspire civic architects in India’s capital; maybe there are lessons in the unplanned shared space of parts of Old Delhi; or could there be inspiration in Kuldip Nayar’s memories of a vibrant people-centred Connaught Place in 1947?

“The situation in Delhi may be drastic,” Britton says, “but the solution will need to be wise.”


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